The entire series of recent election campaigns in the countries of Western Europe and North America showed a notable growth in the role of social media in politics. Now, the fierce fight takes place not only in the streets, at the campaigning stands, or at mass meetings, but also on the pages of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram.
The changes during the recent 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections also affected Ukraine. Active campaigns in favour and against the many candidates unfolded in social media. Thus, this time, the Civil Network OPORA also conducted their observation over the activity of pages on Facebook. Several dozens of pages on this social media appeared to have been created shortly before the start of official campaign, and have been intensely used to run campaigns and especially anti-campaigns against the candidates. However, while the party costs on “physical” campaigning materials are regulated by the Ukrainian law, the undertakings on Facebook usually stay there further on, such as the funny videos (vines) or memes, emotional longreads, or even the targeted political advertisements. The people and the government do not know (or little do they know) on who commissions the advertisements, who pays therefor (and whether it is a transparent procedure), or who receives them. In other words, it cannot guarantee that the competing candidates or parties play fair. There are several problems stemming from the “shadowization” of the kind of campaigns.
Presently, the Ukrainian legal framework provides for the audit of party finance and costs for campaigning incurred by presidential candidates in Ukraine, but the requirements to final financial reports do not contain any separate provision on campaigning costs in social media, or on the Internet in general. According to some recent surveys by USAID-INTERNEWS on content consumption by different media in Ukrainian society, in 2019, social media as a news source took the top position among all other types of social media (TV stations, Internet news websites, radio, and printed mass media). Political advertising, though, is also exercised in social media, such as on Facebook. Anyone who takes the authorization can commission the demonstration of the advertisement to a certain audience and in a certain volume. According to the social media rules, the advertisements related to social or political issues shall be posted with the disclaimer, such as mention the commissioner and the contact details. After the media introduced the open Political Ad Library and the requirements to add the disclaimers, it has become much easier to trace the campaigning activities online. Nevertheless, some share of expressed political advertising is still posted without any such disclaimers, while advertisers are never referred to as campaign offices or their official representatives. Even though visible on the Facebook, this kind of political campaigning is never visible in the candidates’ financial statements. Therefore, the acting law on financial reporting of candidates needs a critical change, and shall also cover the political campaigning online. Otherwise, the Internet space will become the offshore to “launder” public opinions.
As illustrated by the recent presidential campaign in Ukraine, the use of online campaigning helps get around the legal restraints on the allowed political campaigning terms (“Electoral campaigning shall be started by the candidate for the President of Ukraine on the day following the registration by the Central Election Commission, and shall end at 24 o’clock on the last Friday before the election day” — The Law “On Elections of the President of Ukraine”). In other words, it is still run before the official launch day, and on the so called “electoral silence days.” Thus, on the day of the second election round during the Presidential elections, on April, 21, 2019, the page “Zelenskyi Team” published over 400 targeted posts, each of them worth up to 100$. However, the legal requirement to keep the silence day is broken by the candidates also offline (on election days, it was detected boards in various cities in Ukraine with slogans like “The most important thing is not to lose the country” and “Welcome the spring without the ‘porokh’” (‘porokh’ in the literal sense of ‘dust’ as consonant with the name of Poroshenko)” ), and the trend is spread over to Facebook.
In addition, the political campaigning on Facebook was dominated by materials that “twisted” the fears and negative emotions of voters about the campaign front-runners and their supporters. The campaign would often send messages against candidates rather than in their favour. In particular, a number of pages was created in order to discredit Petro Poroshenko, the same as Volodymyr Zelenskyi.
As the rivalry progressed, the posts were shifting from the political agenda or campaigning statements to candidates’ personal traits rather (alcohol addiction, or substance abuse), and to geopolitical consequences the country would face after the election of either of them. Thus, Volodymyr Zelenskyi was depicted as an incompetent “comedian” with substance addiction who was ready to give up Ukraine to Volodymyr Putin at any time. The pages discrediting Petro Poroshenko painted him as a corrupt and greedy oligarch suffering from alcohol addiction. Images, memes, and emotions mattered more for the popularity of these posts than the rational arguments or discussions about candidates’ agendas.
About the Methodology
To analyze the anti-campaigning online, we sampled 46 pages that published regular posts (texts, “memes,” videos) discrediting the two front-runners of the 2019 presidential campaign, Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Petro Poroshenko. Of them, 24 posts were campaigning against Volodymyr Zelenskyi, and 22 — against Petro Poroshenko. It was very often possible to guess the page even by the title — for example, “Слуга урода” [lit. - Servant of the Sheeple], “Петро Incognito” [lit. – Petro Incognito], “АнтіПор” [lit. - AntiPor], etc.
In the process of studying the pages, we assessed whether the messages included an overt or covert call to vote or not to vote for any candidate. The monitor team processed over 30,000 highest ranking posts (i.e., the posts with the highest engagement with readers, according to Facebook rankings), from the start of campaign on December, 2018, to the second-round election day for the President of Ukraine, on April, 21, 2019.
Major requirement for the posts to be considered such that contain some discrediting facts about a candidate was the negative judgmental depiction of candidates and their activity. We also accounted for the criticism of their policies and personal insults, such as “Poroshenko the Dealer” or “Zelenskyi the Kremlin Agent.”
Upon processing the data, OPORA received the findings that indicate to a significant increase in the activity of pages that discredited the front-runners of the presidential campaign on the eve of the election day, in both voting rounds. For example, activity of pages discrediting Petro Poroshenko increased from 20 posts as of the day before the start of campaign to the peak 914 posts a day before the election day in the second round.
Pages that presented Volodymyr Zelenskyi in a negative light also showed a large increase, from 46 posts a day before the start of campaigning period to almost 490 posts as of the day before the second round of elections.
AntiPor and Co: “Pool” of Pages Discrediting Petro Poroshenko
Upon the whole, the pages that ran the campaign against Petro Poroshenko can be divided into three groups — (1) the click-bait “media”, (2) pages that campaigned in favour of the candidates, and (3) pages that mostly discredited other candidates. Each group has peculiar features proving how well it had been organized (unlike the random posts).
1. Click-bait resources that usually have large audiences (from 800,000 to almost 3,000,000 followers) can be further divided into two subgroups. One is represented by pages created rather long time before (some of them have been there since 2011 or since 2015), such as “Украина в шоке”, “BBCcCNN — Новини України сьогодні”, “UA1.com.ua”. Over the period under review, we identified from 70 to 120 high ranking posts discrediting Petro Poroshenko on each of the pages. It is indicative that in addition to discrediting Petro Poroshenko, the pages also published posts that were seemingly in favour of Poroshenko, and also discredited Volodymyr Zelenskyi, but they were much fewer in numbers. We suppose the resources with the highest activity (about several hundreds of daily posts) that publish about the criticism of the current government and present news in a politically biased sense, against any journalist standards, are merely trying to follow public attitudes. However, the posts may have been specially pre-ordered.
Another subgroup includes pages that have been created rather recently – either in the late 2018, such as “5 минут”, or in the early 2019, such as “Знай.ua” and “Politeka” (it is notable that the latter two have been already removed from Facebook). Despite the short-term existence, their audiences were no less numerous than the click-bait resources had, and reached about 2 mln followers, too. These new click-bait “media” were not only unsupportive of Petro Poroshenko (hardly ever posting anything positive about him, unlike the old “media”), but also were more positive about Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Thus, for instance, over the period under analysis, the “Знай.ua” page posted 47 posts discrediting Petro Poroshenko, and as many as 50 posts with the positive image of Volodymyr Zelenskyi. On the basis of the trend and the timing of posts, we may assume that these three pages have been created precisely for political campaigning, both in favour of certain candidates, and against others. We do not possess any evidence about the factual impact these pages had on their followers’ political attitudes, or about any funding of their activity.
2. Pages campaigning for candidates, primarily for Volodymyr Zelenskyi, also used certain tactics discrediting Petro Poroshenko. The pages are: “For Zelenskyi”, “President of Ukraine 2019” and “Змінимо країну РАЗОМ” [lit. - Let’s change the country TOGETHER]. Their audiences were average in size, and included 100,000-400,000 of followers. All three pages were created in winter 2018/2019, most probably for pre-election campaigning of Volodymyr Zelenskyi, and removed after he was elected the President of Ukraine (except for “Змінимо країну РАЗОМ”, still available). The campaigning volume in favour of Volodymyr Zelenskyi on these pages was usually much higher than the volume of discrediting posts against Petro Poroshenko. For example, the correlation of the number of posts over the period under review on the page “Змінимо країну РАЗОМ” — is 74 % to 17 %. The same as in case with the click-bait “media”, we know nothing of any authors of the posts, or of the possible funding of their activity.
3. Pages that primarily campaigned against the candidates. Some of them were created back in 2014, when Petro Poroshenko took the position of the President of Ukraine. Since we accounted to this group the largest number of pages (as many as 7), their outreach is rather big, from 2,700 followers in the “Комітету АнтиПорошен” [lit. – AntiPoroshen Committee] to 170,000 in “ПАП — Порошенко, Аваков, Пашинський” [lit. – PAP – Poroshenko, Avakov, Pashynskyi]. Other representatives of the subgroup are: “Гібридна політика” [lit. – Hybrid Policy], “Я підтримую НАБУ” [lit. – I support the NABU], “Покемони Петра Порошенка” [lit. – Pokemons of Petro Poroshenko], “StopPoroshenko” and “Blind Trust / Сліпий траст”. All of them are still functioning, even though their activity has largely decreased after the defeat of Petro Poroshenko in the second round of presidential elections. In addition to active posts discrediting Petro Poroshenko, some of the pages were also buying political advertising from Facebook. Probably, it was supposed to compensate for the insignificant natural coverage of the pages. According to data from Facebook ad library, the “Гібридна політика” [lit. – Hybrid Policy] page resorted to such activities the most. Over the period under analysis, they published over 70 advertising posts, some of which included the following: “Run, Petro, run!” (by the way, the advertisement was registered as such that did not contain any political aspects). The outreach of such posts that cost the authors thousands of dollars was from 10,000 to 500,000 followers. It is rather much, especially in terms of the number of followers, which is currently slightly above 25,000.
Example of political advertising from the “Hybrid Politics” page, with no disclaimer, i.e. no information about the commissioner available.
[lit. – He made Poroshenko pee into a cup, so he will make Putin piss himself.]
Some of the more recent pages created in September, 2018, have a rather small coverage. They include: “Петро Incognito” [lit. – Petro Incognito], “Мюсли Кличка” [lit. – Klitchko Cereals], “Обещун” [lit. – Promissser], “Старі політики” [lit. – Old Politicians], “Відрубані руки” [lit. – Cut-off Hands], and “АнтіПор” [lit. – AntiPor]. The most popular page of them is the “AntiPor”. It has about 444,000 followers. Most probably, due to its long-time, “genealogy” and the history of reincarnations, such as the “AntiPor” page has functioned in various capacities and under different titles long before the late 2018, currently, all the predecessor pages of “AntiPor” have been removed from Facebook. The “Klitchko Cereals” page that posts rather high-quality videos with political humour has about 33,000 accounts subscribed. It might be assumed that such kinds of posts are much easier to share around the Internet than the complex texts or news reports. However, most pages from this group have no more than several thousand followers. Their content mostly includes comic pictures with political connotation aimed at discrediting Petro Poroshenko and the “old politicians” in general. They also tried to make up for the lacking audience of the page with the help of political advertising – we managed to trace its use by such pages as “AntiPor” (in various capacities), “Old Politicians” a.o. Such advertising often reached several hundred thousand of users, while the amounts paid therefor reached several thousand USD. It is notable that for some pages (“Petro Incognito”, “Blind Trust / Слепой траст”) that procured political advertising from the “new” and the “old” pages discrediting Petro Poroshenko, there was one and the same commissioner indicated in the disclaimer at the Facebook ad library — a legal entity Crossroad SMM. Some pages, against the Facebook policy, posted the overt political advertising, with no disclaimers. In particular, the “Hybrid Politics”, “Pokemons of Petro Poroshenko”, “Klitchko Cereals,” and “AntiPor”. The pages that included the required data were either indicating the little-known initiative the “Old Politicians,” or acted on behalf of the even less known resource “sladosti.com.ua” (the page is currently unavailable!), such as on the page of “PAP — Poroshenko, Avakov, Pashynskyi.”
Political advertising on this page was posted without any disclaimers – such as with no information on commissioners, or their contact details.
[lit. – Poroshenko must leave as soon as possible.]
Olgino at 80, Dmytrivska Street, or How Volodymyr Zelenskyi was Discredited
The pages discrediting Volodymyr Zelenskyi that we explored have some distinguished features, unlike his opponent’s campaign.
Upon the whole, the discrediting pages for Volodymyr Zelenskyi can be divided into 5 groups: (1) click-bait “media”, (2) the “Dmytrivska, 80” group, (3) The provisional group “AntiKolomoyskyi”, (4) a group of small “meme-generators”, and (5) blogs. Each group had a certain “specialization,” both in terms of the audience, and the type of content posted.
1. Click-bait “media”. The group includes pages of various kinds: different time of creation (some of them have been there since 2010 – Gazeta.ua, Україна, others were created in 2017-18 – Київ сьогодні), and a different number of followers (from 40,000 at України to 800,000 at Диалог.UA , and over 1 mln. Gazeta.ua). However, all together, they have a large number of followers – over 2.9 mln.
It is interesting to note that the group of pages is very similar to the group with click-bait media that discredited Petro Poroshenko. It includes the pages that tried some discrediting of Volodymyr Zelenskyi, while at the same time campaigning in favour of other candidates, mostly for Petro Poroshenko. For example, Gazeta.ua, that used to picture Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s activity in a negative light only, also presented some balanced opinions about Petro Poroshenko. It is important to mention that it is typical of the click-bait media to have a moderate number of posts – an average of about 30 posts a day.
For the click-bait media that discredited Volodymyr Zelenskyi, there is another typical feature, such as the high activization in the beginning of the first and/or second round of presidential elections.
Therefore, the click-bait media show the trend of the “catch-all” principle – they are trying to meet all possible political affiliations their followers might have. The media are mostly designed to search for topics interesting and popular for followers rather than a more persistent and targeted information campaign to discredit/ support any presidential candidate.
2. A far more interesting and important to analyze is the so-called group “Dmytrivska, 80”. Its provisional name comes from the Kyiv-based address mentioned in the disclaimer of each advertising post published on all pages in this group. “Zelenka”, “Жовта стрічка” [lit. – Yellow Tape], “Зрада/Перемога” [lit. – Betrayal/Victory], “Порошенко2019” [lit. - Poroshenko 2019], “Міністерство бариг” [lit. – Ministry of Dealers], “Цинічний Бандера” [lit. - Cynical Bandera] and “Бойкот Партии Регионов” [lit. – Boycott of the Party of Regions] – the ads on all these pages, according to the data offered by the Facebook political ad library (including also the addresses and the mobile telephone numbers of commissioners), was placed by the same legal entity. It is also notable to mention that the commissioners of the ads were stated as the Facebook pages, rather than legal entities or natural persons. One of the arguments proving the link between the pages could be also their current activity: such as, on December, 17, 2019, on the pages of the “Цинічний Бандера” [lit. – Cynical Bandera] and “Бойкот Партии Регионов”[lit. – Boycott of the Party of Regions] the same posts were published, only 1 minute apart in time.
[lit. – There are clashes at the Parliament. Avakov’s National Corps are against Avakov’s Police. The stakes are accepted by Avakov’s Kosmolot.]
[lit. – Could the Commander-in-Chief be taking drugs?]
It is typical for this group of pages to have a rather small number of followers: on average, they have about 50,000 followers (from 23,000 on “Зрада/Перемога”[lit. – Betrayal/Victory] to 127,000 on the oldest page “Бойкот Партии Регионов” [lit. – Boycott of the Party of Regions]). They are distinctive among other groups by the type of content: those are mostly photo- and video materials, while the posts are on average only 11 words long. It is also important to note that all pages from the group discredit Volodymyr Zelenskyi but also campaign for Petro Poroshenko (especially – “Poroshenko 2019” presenting itself as an “official page of Petro Poroshenko’s campaign”). It is typical of the common posts, and for the ads, too.
We assume that the above-mentioned Facebook-pages were created separately from one another but after some time they went under the same administration, in one way or another. Moreover, during the election campaign, they were used to share the advertising posts among users who followed the page and/or could be interested to follow it, due to targeting.
3. We refer to the “AntiKolomoyskyi” group the four pages that are especially distinctive among others in their topics: they chose for their information campaign to cover the threat of letting the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi to power. For that purpose, they equally used discreditation of Volodymyr Zelenskyi, and Yuliya Tymoshenko, while virtually all of them campaigned for Petro Poroshenko. It is interesting to see that most these pages were created shortly before the start of election campaign, or during the campaign: “Шостий” [lit. – The Sixth] – in December, 2018, while “Коломойський – президент” [lit. – Kolomoyskyi is the President] and “Бенина кофейня”[lit. – Benia’s Coffee House] – in January, 2019. The only page that stands out in the cohort is the “Собака Путина” [lit. – Putin’s Dog] – created as long ago as September, 2013 (back then, it was discrediting only Yuliya Tymoshenko, while during this presidential campaign it also heavily focused on Volodymyr Zelenskyi).
For the “AntiKolomoyskyi” group, it is also typical to have a small number of followers – on average, about 6,000 (from 300 on “Бенина кофейня” to almost 21,000 on “Собака Путина”). A typical type of content are the photos (on average, 77 photos per page), and also links to external resources (on average – 57). It is notable that the administrators are searching for the information relevant to the themes of these pages coming from various sources – both from news websites (“Novoye Vremia”, “Gordon,” etc.), and from other platforms such as YouTube.
[Are you looking forward to March, 31? Ihor Kolomoyskyi is looking forward to it, too.
title: Kolomoyskyi expects to receive the compensation for Privatbank after the elections.]
[Backing vocals is Mr Danyliuk dismissed by Groysman. The ex-Minister for Economy aspires for the position of the Minister for Foreign Affairs with Zelenskyi.
title: Zelenskyi Meets Macron in Paris.]
4. Group of “meme-generators” includes five pages. The peculiarity is the manner of presenting information: posts in the pages from this group hardly contain any text (on average, they are 8.6 words in a post). At the same time, the key manner to present information to followers are the photos (on average, 1,168 photographs per page) and video (137 videos per page). Vast majority of posts are the comic images of Volodymyr Zelenskyi, and demonstration of his alleged clumsiness, inexperience, and dependence on Ihor Kolomoyskyi.
Virtually all the pages have been created recently (December, 2018 – January, 2019), and have a moderate number of followers: “Ебонітові палички” [lit. – Ebonite Sticks] and “ЗеКо” [lit. – ZeCo – consonant with ‘convict’] – up to 2,500, “Слуга урода”[appr. – ‘Servant of the Sheeple’] – almost 22,000, “Бенин клоун” [lit. – Benia’s Clown] – over 92,000. One of the pages that stands particularly out is the “Баба і кіт”[lit. – Granny and the Cat]: it was created back in 2012 (at that time, it mostly discredited the Party of Regions and President Yanukovych, while in 2014 it became the most popular Ukrainian page on Facebook), that is why today it already has half a million of followers.
It is common for these pages to borrow the “memes” within the group. It can be illustrated by the publication of the same post in two different groups, several days apart.
[lit. – Physics LeZeon: 1. Take zelenskyi. 2. Take the ebonite stick. 3. Put it on. 4. You get the shit on the stick.]
Political advertising discrediting Volodymyr Zelenskyi was posted only on two pages of the five – “Бенин клоун” and “Слуга урода”. At the same time, it is important to note that the ads were different, and it was presented on both pages with no relevant disclaimers, that is why it is impossible to detect the origin.
In general, it is common to have certain hierarchy for this group: most of activity is exercised by big groups – “Бенин клоун” and “Баба і кіт”. Smaller groups were mostly sharing the materials of the big groups, thus increasing the potential outreach to have as many people possible see the posts. In our opinion, the group of “meme-generators” has certain signs of organized activity.
5. The last group of pages includes the blogs. We included into this group two pages only. They are the “Антивсепропальщик/Антипопуліст” [lit. – Anti-All-is-lost-ers/Anti-populists] and “А що там у ПП?” [lit. – What’s new with PP?]. They have rather big audiences – about 180,000 of followers. The pages are crucially different from all other groups that mostly post long-reads (on average – 275 words per post). There, they express a big support for Petro Poroshenko and discredit Volodymyr Zelenskyi (these are mostly the posts recommended by followers, that is why the administration was de facto sharing their opinions to larger audiences). However, both pages were not only limited to texts. The two pages posted about 9,000 photographs and over 500 videos.
In addition, the pages also showed advertising (also without any disclaimers). However, the signs of discrediting Volodymyr Zelenskyi can be noticed only in the advertising on the “Антивсепропальщик/Антипопуліст” page.
On the “А що там у ПП?” page, the advertisements were only related to campaigning for Petro Poroshenko.
Despite the fact that “Антивсепропальщик/Антипопуліст” and “А що там у ПП?” have a similar content (posts where followers express their opinions) and support Petro Poroshenko, their activity does not overlap: they publish various posts, while advertising is different in terms of themes and style.
Thus, the online election campaigns against the Ukrainian presidential candidates Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyi have a number of shared features. In both cases, several pages at once have been obviously created “for the elections”, such as in the late 2018 or in the early 2019. Some of them, and likewise some older pages, were administered by the same SMM company that also commissioned the targeted political advertising. One biased actor advocating against Petro Poroshenko, the same as against Volodymyr Zelenskyi, was the click-bait “media” with several million outreach and high activity levels (up to 300 posts a day). Another similarity was in the fact that the discrediting campaign against both candidates has largely activated after the announcement of voting results of the first round.
One of the peculiarities of the pages that published posts discrediting both rivals that we managed to identify was the fact that the higher the number of followers of the page the more “balanced” the coverage about the candidates was (could be neutral, and could be positive, and also could be negative, towards both candidates). On the contrary, the smaller the audience, the more “dramatic” the posts. It is highly probable that the pages were designed specifically to run the discrediting campaign (for example, “Petro Incognito”, “Klitchko Cereals” or “Old Politicians”). Most of them were created or activated in winter 2018/2019, shortly before or during the election campaign.
Nevertheless, the dedicated creation of the pages only to run the discrediting campaign has hardly turned efficient: during the presidential campaign, the pages failed to gather any significant number of followers. That is why they tried to compensate the lack of audience by buying political advertising. On the other hand, the activity of low-quality click-bait media, with their biased attitude towards candidate undermines the very idea of the impartial engagement of media in the election process. Due to the fact that the pages had access to large numbers of followers, their political campaigning shall be regulated on the legal level, regardless of whether it is pre-paid or not.
You can read more about the outreach of the campaigning for the front-runners at the presidential election on Facebook and how much money was actually spent thereon - read here.